Magazine article Insight on the News

As We Contemplate Our Good Fortune, We Must Recall What's Past Is Prologue

Magazine article Insight on the News

As We Contemplate Our Good Fortune, We Must Recall What's Past Is Prologue

Article excerpt

Americans relentlessly live in the present. Let yesterday take care of itself as best it can. But wedded as we are to the present, now and again a fragment of history rivets a piece of the American past to our daily lives.

Earlier this fall, Helen Carroll Wright died in Maryland. She was 84. Mrs. Wright was - think of this! - the great-granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence when he died in 1832.

It is not uncommon, of course, for those who are sluicing along in their seventh or eighth decade to have great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War. But so direct a link to the nation's sovereign origin is compelling - the continuity of four generations from the revolution to the worlds only superpower and a beacon of personal freedom and material sufficiency.

Among the historically minded, a debate kindles from time to time about the United States: Are we still a young country or, given the dramatic velocity of event, are we no longer wet behind our national ears - in fact, are we in full adulthood or even an incipient geriatric condition?

The implications are as much judgmental as descriptive. That is, if the United States is short of maturity in national terms, then some deficiencies can be ascribed to youthful giddiness or inexperience and are more or less excusable. The dimensions of that discussion slide into the political, especially with another presidential election in the merciless media glare in which we exist. Proportion usually is a casualty.

Thinking of Mrs. Wright and her illustrious ancestor perhaps inserts a shade of proportion: "What would the Framers be most struck by in America today?" asked Robert Nisbet in his 1988 book, The Present Age. "I mean after they had recovered from the shock of seeing clean, strong, white teeth instead of decayed yellow stumps in the mouths of their descendants, after they assimilated the fact of the astounding number of Americans who were neither crippled, disease-wasted, nor pockmarked from smallpox...."

It also would astound the Framers - and should us as well - that the vast majority in this land are adequately fed (or more than adequately), have merely to flip a switch for reliable electric light and heat and turn a faucet for potable water. We routinely have choices about our lives that were inconceivable before or still are fantasies in much of the world. …

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